The 2008 Election

In late 2007, before the start of the presidential primaries and caucuses and nearly a year before the presidential election, a Democratic victory appeared highly likely. The incumbent president, George W. Bush, had a very low approval rating. The ongoing war in Iraq was unpopular. The economy was deteriorating. Public opinion polls showed that more people believed that the Democrats were better able to handle the nation's problems. Democrats had already capitalized on dissatisfaction with the Bush administration by capturing control of Congress in the 2006 mid-term elections. Most pundits confidently predicted a Democratic victory in 2008.

By July, 2008, after the presidential candidates had effectively been selected, but prior to the national party conventions and the presidential campaign, a Democratic victory did not appear so inevitable. A number of developments during the presidential nominating contests gave Republicans hope for victory:

  • First of all, they nominated Senator John McCain, who was widely seen as a maverick who disagreed with his own party on some important issues, which made him appealing to many independent voters. Moreover, he had criticized the Bush administration on some high profile issues, which led some analysts to think that he could separate himself from the failures of the Bush presidency. Of all the contenders for the Republican nomination, McCain undoubtedly was the one who had the best chance of victory.
  • Second, the Democratic nomination contest proved to be a long and highly competitive battle between Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. While Obama prevailed, he did so only after what many regarded as a very divisive fight. A substantial number of Clinton supporters, especially women, seemed unhappy with the outcome and reluctant to fully support Obama.
  • Moreover, Obama had potential vulnerabilities. He was a very inexperienced presidential candidate, having served only four years in the U.S. Senate, and Republicans hoped to use that inexperience against him, especially when compared with the lengthy record of public service that McCain possessed. Also, there was speculation that some segments of the Democratic coalition, such as rural white working-class voters, would be reluctant to vote for a black presidential candidate.

While Republicans had reasons to be optimistic at the start of the campaign, the end result was the Democratic victory that pundits had earlier predicted. As the presidential campaign unfolded, a number of developments led to Obama's clear victory:

  • McCain's choice of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, while initially very popular, proved to be a poor choice, as she demonstrated a lack of understanding of issues in her media interviews. Obama's vice-presidential choice, Senator Joe Biden, was a much sounder selection.
  • The collapse of the nation's financial system in September focused attention on economic matters, which clearly advantaged Obama. McCain would have preferred for foreign policy and national security issues to have dominated the campaign.
  • Obama performed quite well in the three presidential debates and during the campaign as a whole, well enough to erase many of the doubts about his ability to handle the job of president.
  • While McCain attempted to separate himself from Bush, the Obama campaign did its best to link them as tightly as possible. They even were able to use McCain's own words against him to do so.
  • Obama also had a far superior campaign organization, due in part to his superior financial resources and in part to the effective organization that he created in many states during the primary season.

Learn more about the 2008 Election

Campaign themes, strategies, and developments

Campaign issues and candidate positions

Election Results

The 2008 contest ended with a clear and undisputed victory for Obama. He won 53.7 percent of the two-party vote (52.9 percent of the total vote), and he won 365 electoral college votes to McCain's 173. View state-by-state results

The congressional elections also were a victory for Democrats, who added seats in the House and Senate, enhancing the majorities that they had won in both houses in the 2006 elections.

Turnout in 20081 was higher than in previous elections. Almost 62 percent of the eligible electorate voted in 2008, compared to about 60 percent in 2004 and 55 percent in 2000.

For more discussion of the 2008 election, consult the following sources of information:

  • Janet M. Box-Steffensmeier and Steven E. Schier, ed. The American Elections of 2008. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009.
  • James W. Ceaser, Andrew E. Busch, and John J. Pitney, Jr. Epic Journey: The 2008 Elections and American Politics. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009.
  • William J. Crotty, ed. Winning the Presidency 2008. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2009.
  • Michael Nelson, ed. The Elections of 2008. Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2009.


1 Further information about turnout in 2008, including turnout estimates for each state in 2008 and comparisons of the 2008 turnout rate to that of previous years, can be found at: